Northwest Nazarene University using UAV in wild fire research

By Ann Bailey | October 01, 2015

Two Northwest Nazarene University professors and a half dozen undergraduate students are using UAS to photograph the aftermath of wild fires in Idaho.

The research team led by Dale Hamilton, assistant professor of computer science and Barry Myers, associate professor of computer science at the Nampa, Idaho, university has been awarded a NASA EPSCoR Undergraduate Research Grant. Research funding for the grant totals $65,000, Hamilton said.

The purpose of NASA’s EPSCoR is to provide more aerospace research opportunities to areas of the United States which often had lacked them. The NNU’s research team’s project, called FireMap, began in October 2014.

The FireMap system is made up of a UAS with a camera and a computer program which processes the images. The aim of the research project during its early phase is to look at the effects of wild fires on the landscape. This past year, the research team built prototype systems.

The UAS’s, which fly over areas after wild fires in Idaho have been extinguished, access and monitor the fire’s effects and collect data . The team uses the data to help with post-recovery plans and to update spatial fuel layers to reflect the effects of fire on vegetation.

Hamilton is pleased with the initial results. The team’s success in identifying where a fire burned and the vegetation types found outside the burn area bode well for the potential valuable information that UAS can achieve through future research, he said.

The research work under way is just the beginning of a project Hamilton envisions will continue and expand in scope. He recently applied for a national NASA grant that would award a larger amount of research dollars than the previous grants.

“We’re basically at the beginning of this. Our goal is that it will be going for multiple years. Each time we get another grant, we will expand the scope of the research further,” Hamilton said.

He hopes to eventually use UAS equipped with cameras to fly over wild fire that still are raging. Doing so isn’t practical now because of constrictions that result from federal regulations, he said, but he expects that will change when the FAA and federal land agencies come to an agreement on UAS use.

“At that point using UAS over a fire will be more accepted and more feasible,” Hamilton said.